7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
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- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
3. Use Your Space Wisely
Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
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The Common App: Everything You Need to Know
The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges and universities.
Students need to give themselves at least six weeks to get everything they need for college applications. (Getty Images)
Applying to college can be a tedious and stressful process for students and their parents. In addition to doing the research and paperwork associated with applications, teens may also be juggling the SAT or ACT , college tours and a tough senior year course load.
The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 1,000 schools, including some colleges outside the U.S., helps streamline an essential part of the admissions process for students.
Through the platform, first-time and transfer applicants can apply to multiple colleges at once. So students only have to fill out details that most schools require – such as name, address and extracurricular activities – one time.
"The idea behind the Common App is to try and reduce the barriers that students face when applying to college ," says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App, the nonprofit that manages the application.
Despite its popularity, the Common App may be confusing for some families who are new to the college application process . The guide below can help ease students and parents through the application.
When Can I Start Working on My College Application Through the Common App?
The new edition of the Common App opens Aug. 1 every year. Given the variance in college application deadlines, students should pay close attention to when they need to submit their materials.
For example, students who are applying for early action or early decision may need to submit an application in November or December, whereas the regular decision deadline is more likely to be Jan. 1. Prospective students should treat these ranges as a general rule of thumb and check with individual colleges on deadlines.
Students don't have to wait until Aug. 1 to get started on the Common App. They can create an account at any time and transfer their information into the new app when it opens. College admissions counselors suggest students start completing application tasks as early as possible, including during the summer before their senior year.
"Don’t wait until the deadline day to complete your application," says Keri Risic, executive director of admissions at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. " You may have questions or need help that may not be possible at the last minute."
How to Complete the Common Application
Here are steps for how students can work on an application through the platform:
- Go to commonapp.org and click on the "Start your application" button to get details about how to create an account and log in. Students also can download the Common App's mobile app to keep track of deadlines, invite recommenders and set reminders.
- Choose the first-year student or transfer student option.
- Add user information such as name, email, phone number, address, date of birth and prospective enrollment year.
- Fill out the user profile with requested details on education, extracurriculars, demographic data, household information and more.
- Add collaborators such as teachers, counselors and others providing letters of recommendation or other supporting documents.
- Search for and add schools to "My Colleges."
- Get familiar with each college's application requirements and follow those accordingly when applying.
How Long Does It Take to Fill Out an Application?
The time it takes to fill out an application varies based on a school's requirements, experts say. However, students need to give themselves at least two months to complete their college applications, says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor with IvyWise, an education consulting company.
That includes time to fill out background information, gather the required documents, and write the personal statement and any supplemental essays that might be required by schools. Applicants can find the various writing requirements for each school in the Common App's Student Solutions Center.
"Given the increase in the number of applications for some students and the number of supplemental essays that students have to write, I would suggest even longer to work on all the essays," Chu says. "Writing is an iterative process, and with revisions, which take time, students can write good essays."
In addition to any optional parental information needed – such as employer details and educational background – many schools require first-year applicants to submit recommendation letters and transcripts. Students need to give teachers and counselors enough time to submit those materials to the Common App before deadlines.
High school counselors encourage students to ask their teachers for recommendation letters before the end of their junior year so that educators can work on them during the summer. Seniors who need recommendation letters should ask for them early in the school year, experts say.
What Are the Common App Essay Prompts and Where Can I Find Them?
There are seven Common App first-year essay prompts for the 2023-2024 school year, and they are the same as the ones used for the 2022-2023- application. Students need to choose only one prompt.
The prompts ask students to, for instance, "reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth." Applicants have a maximum of 650 words for the essay.
An optional non-essay question added in 2020 on how the coronavirus pandemic affected students will remain on the Common App this year. Answers to this question are limited to 250 words. Roughly 14% of all applicants in the 2022-23 admissions cycle provided a response to the COVID-19 question, per figures provided by Emma Steele, director of media and external affairs for Common App.
Not all schools require students to submit an essay . And some institutions may require students to submit a supplemental essay or additional information. Applicants can see the requirements for all schools on the Common App when they log in to their student accounts or download a PDF from the Common App's website.
Applicants can also preview supplemental questions for schools before they start their applications through the platform's Student Solutions Center.
What Should I Do if I Run Into Problems With the Common App?
Students who have questions about filling out the application can ask their high school counselor and admissions officers at the colleges they're applying to for help, experts say. Common App provides resources in English and Spanish for counselors and those writing recommendation letters.
The Common App also has a variety of resources for applicants to help make the application process easier, such as financial aid and scholarship information.
In addition to video tutorials throughout the application, the platform has year-round technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Applicants can find answers to frequently asked questions or submit a question in the Student Solutions Center. Response times vary, but the average wait time is 20 minutes, according to Common App representatives.
"Don’t be afraid to ask questions of each school’s admissions representatives," Risic says. "They are there to help you as you work through your applications."
Can I Get Fee Waivers for the Common App?
The Common App is free to use but individual schools can charge application fees, which students pay when they submit their applications. About half of member schools don't charge application fees for first-year students, according to data provided by the organization.
Applicants who qualify for fee waivers – those who meet the standards set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling – will be able to make that known through the application.
"A student only needs to indicate that they have financial hardship once in the application, and that fee waiver can be applied to any school they apply to," Rickard says.
Students who have questions about whether they qualify for fee waivers can reach out to their high school counselors or directly to the colleges that they are applying to, experts say.
What Tips Can Make Filling Out the Common App Easier?
Don't wait until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 1 to finish applications as some students do, experts say. Schools will still accept applications that are a few minutes late, according to Common App representatives, but the stress that comes with fighting against the clock – and the increased potential for typos and other mistakes – isn't worth it.
Besides starting early, experts encourage students to take advantage of the Common App preview that allows students to review their application prior to submission.
Students can also assign advisers who can see parts of an application and the progress they've made.
Do I Have to Use the Common App to Apply to College?
Students are not required to use the Common App. While the platform is popular, it isn't the only one for college applications.
Many schools allow students to apply online through their websites. Some states have application systems that students can or must use in order to apply to colleges. For example, Texas has a statewide system for submitting applications, though some Texas schools also accept the Common App.
Some well-known private institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., accept applications only through their school websites. Many other competitive colleges and universities, such as Harvard University and Amherst College , both in Massachusetts, accept applications through the Common App.
Other platforms accepted by some schools include the Coalition Application and the Common Black College Application , which serves historically Black colleges and universities. Many schools that use those platforms also use the Common App.
Do Colleges Care if I Use the Common App or a Different Platform?
Colleges that allow students to submit applications through multiple platforms don't have a preference on which one is used, but high school counselors might. The Common App's integration with Naviance, a college and career readiness software provider, makes it easy for counselors to submit documentation for colleges, experts say.
But students should submit one application per college using the platform that works best for them.
“As a student selects which application platform to use, we recommend they think about their full list of schools and consider what each school requires for an application," Risic says. " Going in with that information could help them streamline their application approach and reduce some of the stress we know students feel at this stage."
How Does the Common App Work for Transfer Students?
The transfer portion of the Common App works in much the same way as it does for first-time applicants, with some differences. More than 600 schools accept the Common App for transfer.
Unlike first-time applicants, transfer students will have additional information to submit from colleges attended. The Common App asks them to list any college or university attended, dates of enrollment, college coursework completed and GPA.
An essay for transfer students is also required. Common App updated the transfer essay requirement last year, making the question prompts the same as for first-time applicants.
Changes for the 2023-2024 Common App
There are several updates in the 2023-24 Common App, including information related to gender identity and race. Common App will add "X or another legal sex" as an option in addition to "female" and "male." This change follows the 2022-23 addition of “Mx.” and “other” options for counselor, parent, recommender, teacher and advisor prefix options. It also added “legal” to the first/given name question label during the previous admissions cycle.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the use of race in college admissions decisions , Common App "will provide its member colleges the option to hide the self-disclosed race and ethnicity data on the application," according to the website .
Common App also added nearly 50 new member colleges and universities, including 15 minority-serving institutions, to its platform.
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Frequently asked questions
What is the common application essay.
The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.
Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
Frequently asked questions: College admissions essays
When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.
No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.
Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.
Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding your message and content. Then, check for flow, tone, style , and clarity. Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors .
If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
If you’ve got to write your college essay fast , don’t panic. First, set yourself deadlines: you should spend about 10% of your remaining time on brainstorming, 10% on outlining, 40% writing, 30% revising, and 10% taking breaks in between stages.
Second, brainstorm stories and values based on your essay prompt.
Third, outline your essay based on the montage or narrative essay structure .
Fourth, write specific, personal, and unique stories that would be hard for other students to replicate.
Fifth, revise your essay and make sure it’s clearly written.
Last, if possible, get feedback from an essay coach . Scribbr essay editors can help you revise your essay in 12 hours or less.
Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.
If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson.
However, some college applications offer an additional information section where you can explain your bad grades, allowing you to choose another meaningful topic for your college essay.
Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:
- Extracurriculars, especially sports
- Role models
- Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
- Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
- Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
- Overcoming a difficult class
- Using a common object as an extended metaphor
It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.
Yes. The college application essay is less formal than other academic writing —though of course it’s not mandatory to use contractions in your essay.
In a college essay , you can be creative with your language . When writing about the past, you can use the present tense to make the reader feel as if they were there in the moment with you. But make sure to maintain consistency and when in doubt, default to the correct verb tense according to the time you’re writing about.
The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.
Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay’s content.
A college application essay is less formal than most academic writing . Instead of citing sources formally with in-text citations and a reference list, you can cite them informally in your text.
For example, “In her research paper on genetics, Quinn Roberts explores …”
There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .
Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:
- Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
- Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
- Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
- Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
- Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)
To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.
Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.
Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .
In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .
You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.
Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.
Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.
You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.
To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:
- Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
- Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories
You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.
Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .
There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic
- Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
- Focuses on you and your experiences
- Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
- Is creative and original
Unlike a five-paragraph essay, your admissions essay should not end by summarizing the points you’ve already made. It’s better to be creative and aim for a strong final impression.
You should also avoid stating the obvious (for example, saying that you hope to be accepted).
There are a few strategies you can use for a memorable ending to your college essay :
- Return to the beginning with a “full circle” structure
- Reveal the main point or insight in your story
- Look to the future
- End on an action
The best technique will depend on your topic choice, essay outline, and writing style. You can write several endings using different techniques to see which works best.
College deadlines vary depending on the schools you’re applying to and your application plan:
- For early action applications and the first round of early decision applications, the deadline is on November 1 or 15. Decisions are released by mid-December.
- For the second round of early decision applications, the deadline is January 1 or 15. Decisions are released in January or February.
- Regular decision deadlines usually fall between late November and mid-March, and decisions are released in March or April.
- Rolling admission deadlines run from July to April, and decisions are released around four to eight weeks after submission.
Depending on your prospective schools’ requirements, you may need to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of your college application .
Some schools now no longer require students to submit test scores; however, you should still take the SAT or ACT and aim to get a high score to strengthen your application package.
Aim to take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year to give yourself enough time to retake it in the fall of your senior year if necessary.
Apply early for federal student aid and application fee waivers. You can also look for scholarships from schools, corporations, and charitable foundations.
To maximize your options, you should aim to apply to about eight schools:
- Two reach schools that might be difficult to get into
- Four match schools that you have a good chance of getting into
- Two safety schools that you feel confident you’ll get into
The college admissions essay accounts for roughly 25% of the weight of your application .
At highly selective schools, there are four qualified candidates for every spot. While your academic achievements are important, your college admissions essay can help you stand out from other applicants with similar profiles.
In general, for your college application you will need to submit all of the following:
- Your personal information
- List of extracurriculars and awards
- College application essays
- Standardized test scores
- Recommendation letters.
Different colleges may have specific requirements, so make sure you check exactly what’s expected in the application guidance.
You should start thinking about your college applications the summer before your junior year to give you sufficient time for college visits, taking standardized tests, applying for financial aid , writing essays, and collecting application material.
Yes, but make sure your essay directly addresses the prompt, respects the word count , and demonstrates the organization’s values.
If you plan ahead, you can save time by writing one scholarship essay for multiple prompts with similar questions. In a scholarship tracker spreadsheet, you can group or color-code overlapping essay prompts; then, write a single essay for multiple scholarships. Sometimes, you can even reuse or adapt your main college essay .
You can start applying for scholarships as early as your junior year. Continue applying throughout your senior year.
Invest time in applying for various scholarships , especially local ones with small dollar amounts, which are likely easier to win and more reflective of your background and interests. It will be easier for you to write an authentic and compelling essay if the scholarship topic is meaningful to you.
You can find scholarships through your school counselor, community network, or an internet search.
A scholarship essay requires you to demonstrate your values and qualities while answering the prompt’s specific question.
After researching the scholarship organization, identify a personal experience that embodies its values and exemplifies how you will be a successful student.
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.
You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.
Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.
In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.
Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.
The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.
The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.
You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.
You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.
If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.
Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.
You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.
Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:
- Use a standard, readable font
- Use 1.5 or double spacing
- If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
- Stick to the word count
- Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches
There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:
- A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
- A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.
Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.
Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.
Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.
Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision . Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.
Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content . Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.
Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.
If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor ; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.
Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.
Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.
When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.
First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:
- What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
- Whom do you admire most and why?
- What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?
However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.
In a college application essay , you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.
However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.
Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay and make sure it’s the right length . Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.
Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective . Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.
If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references , you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.
Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.
College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.
Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.
Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills , and ability to self-reflect . The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.
The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application , especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.
Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college . Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid .
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Apply to college
Whether you're applying to college for the first time or transferring to complete your degree, here’s how to get started on your college application.
What is Common App?
Each year, more than 1 million students apply to more than 1,000 Common App member colleges worldwide through our online college application platform.
Follow the steps below to get started, or visit our first-year and transfer application guides for more information.
How it works
Create your profile.
Your Common App profile is your chance to shine. It’s everything you want a college or university to know about you - from your academic coursework to your extracurricular activities.
Add colleges to your list
Now you get to decide what’s most important to you in a college or university. Search through the characteristics and add colleges that align with them.
Once you’ve decided where you want to apply, make a checklist of everything required. Each college and university is different, so make sure you stay on top of their application requirements.
Be sure to take a moment to celebrate this huge accomplishment! And remember to finish the academic year on a high note, apply for financial aid and prepare for the future.
The application guides
Now that you know what to expect from the process, you’re ready to apply. We’ve created two simple guides, one for first-year and one for transfer applicants.
For first-time students
Use this guide if you’re in high school and intend to apply as a first-time full-time freshman. It will walk you through the application from start to finish.
For transfer students
If you’re looking to transfer to a four-year institution or intend to restart your college journey, this is the place to get started.
The Common App essay prompts provide an amazing opportunity for you to tell colleges and universities about who you are and how you can contribute to your future campus experience.
Explore colleges on Common App
Search more than 1,000 member colleges and universities using Common App. See application requirements, access virtual tours, learn about academic programs, testing policies and student experience on campus. Get started today to add colleges to your My Colleges tab in application.
Get Common App on your phone
Take Common App with you where ever you go. Our mobile app helps you track your progress, stay on top of application requirements, and manage deadlines.
College exploration and planning
There are so many important factors involved in finding the right college for you. Here are some resources to help you discover the most important qualities in your future college campus.
Whether you're at home or on the go, we're here to support you throughout your journey in applying to college.
Download Common App for mobile .
We want to make sure you have the opportunity to provide details about how COVID-19 has impact you personally and academically on your college applications. If you need it, there is a question on the Common App this year and you will only have to complete the question once. The question is located in the Additional Information section of the application, and will allow colleges and universities to better understand your experience. Your school counselor will also have space in the Common App recommender system to talk about how the pandemic affected your school.
Learn how to plan for the question, and if responding to the question is right for you, by visiting our blog .
Wondering how to approach the college essay? Common App's Scott Anderson offers his timely advice on sharing your personal and academic experience. Learn more on our blog .
Start your application today
Common App Essays 2023‒2024
Each year, the Common Application organization releases the prompts for the Common App essays. Often referred to as the “personal statement,” Common App essays are a central part of the college application process. Students can choose from one of seven Common App essay prompts to best showcase who they are to admissions officers.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- All new Common App prompts for the 2023-24 admissions cycle
- What are Common App essays?
How many Common App essays are required?
- How long your Common App essays should be
- What makes a great college essay
- Each of the prompts for the Common App essays
- Some Common App essay tips
- Good college essay topics
- A timeline to help you write your Common App essay
- More Common Application resources from CollegeAdvisor
To learn how to write compelling Common App essays, read on!
New Common App Prompts for 2023-2024
Common App revisits their prompts every year. Over the past several years, Common App has opted not to release any new Common App prompts.
There will be no new Common App prompts in the upcoming admissions cycle. Instead, the prompts for the Common App essays will remain the same as those used in the 2022-23 admissions cycle.
In general, from year to year, the Common Application essay prompts remain fairly similar . In fact, the Common App essay prompts 2021 are the same as the prompts in use today. The last change took place among the Common App essay prompts 2021, which featured a new essay about gratitude.
Since there are seldom any new Common App prompts, students can use previous years’ prompts to start brainstorming and preparing.
Here are the seven Common App prompts from this year :
7 common app prompts, some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. if this sounds like you, then please share your story., the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. how did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience, reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. what prompted your thinking what was the outcome, reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. how has this gratitude affected or motivated you, discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others., describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. why does it captivate you what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more, share an essay on any topic of your choice. it can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design..
We’ll go deeper into the Common App essay prompts and other Common App essay tips later in this guide. We’ll also discuss some Common App essay ideas, and where to find some Common App essay examples that worked . But first, let’s go over the basics of the Common App essays.
What is the Common App essay?
As you begin applying to college, you’ll likely hear a lot about Common App essays (or personal statements). Of course, you’ll complete other essays during the college application process—namely, school-specific supplemental essays. However, when someone talks about “college essays,” or “personal statements,” they are usually referring to the Common App essays.
But what is the Common App essay?
The Common Application is a platform that helps streamline the college application process. And according to Forbes , the number of students who apply to college using the Common App has surged 20% since 2019.
Using the Common App, you can apply to college more easily— over 1,000 schools accept the Common Application. This figure includes Ivies like Yale and Dartmouth , as well as public state universities like Penn State . Once you create your Common App login, you can complete your personal information for every school at once. The Common Application makes it easy to keep track of college application requirements, deadlines , letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars and awards.
Coalition Application vs. Common Application
There are many different types of college applications, of which the Common Application is only one. Though only accepted by 90 member institutions, the Coalition Application is another popular application platform that allows you to collect your application information in one place. Much of the advice on Common App essays in this guide will also apply to the Coalition Application essay.
The Common App essay
Common App requirements include a list of your extracurricular activities, your self-reported grades, and your personal information. Another key section of the Common App is the Common App essay. You will also use the Common App to submit supplemental essays for particular schools.
The Common App essay, often called the personal statement, is sent to every college that accepts the Common Application. This essay will answer one of the Common App essay prompts to showcase something that makes you who you are. The Common App essay word limit is 650 words.
Since students submit their Common App essays to every school, they should be as strong as possible. In this guide, we’ll share some Common App essay tips to help your personal statement shine. We’ll also review the Common App essay requirements and discuss some Common App essay ideas.
There are seven Common App essay prompts. So, how many Common App essays are required?
Only one Common App essay is required. This means that you’ll respond to only one of the Common App prompts.
As you begin your writing process, read through the Common App essay prompts and see which one appeals to you the most. Try brainstorming answers to different prompts or discussing them with a parent, friend, or advisor.
Again, students only need to select one of the Common App essay prompts for their Common App essays. So, you’ll only need to write one essay that meets the Common App essay word limit.
Supplemental essays and the Common Application
Many schools also require students to write supplemental essays. Most supplemental essays will be shorter —usually 200-400 words as opposed to the Common App essay word limit of 650. You’ll submit these essays through the Common App. However, we don’t generally refer to these supplemental essays as “Common App essays.”
How long should the Common App essay be?
The Common App essay word limit is 650 words maximum. However, according to the official Common App essay requirements, the lower stay Common App essay word limit is 250 words.
As you brainstorm topics for Common App essays, make sure that the story you want to tell fits into the Common App essay word limit. Once you create your Common App login, you can familiarize yourself with the Common App essay requirements, including the word limit.
Students should aim for the higher end of the Common App essay word limit range. After all, admissions officers rely on Common App essays a lot within the admissions process. Therefore, you want your personal statement to offer a comprehensive picture of who you are and what matters to you.
Making the most of the Common App essay word limit
Writing Common App essays can feel like a daunting task, especially given the word count. To make the most of the Common App essay word limit, make sure you start your writing process early. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to edit your personal statement so every word counts.
Also, don’t try to explain your whole life story in the relatively short Common App essay word limit. Instead, try to tell an anecdote that encapsulates some aspect of your personality or your upbringing. Then, connect it to broader themes, including your future goals.
What makes a great college essay?
Now, you understand the basic format of Common App essays. Maybe you’ve even made your Common App login and started brainstorming topics. Next, you might be wondering: how can I write the best Common App essay?
Most good college essays and personal statements include similar features:
- A strong story that highlights a key part of the writer’s identity
- An engaging hook
- Strong structural components
- Clear, well-crafted prose
- Flawless grammar and syntax
Though none of these tips are strict Common App essay requirements, your personal statement should meet these criteria.
Good college essays also depend on your ability to be introspective. The best college admissions essays will reveal something unique about the writer. Often, in order to tell a compelling story about who you are, writers look deeply at their upbringing, identity, and values. The best Common App essay ideas aren’t something you can find in a Common App essay tips blog. Instead, they’ll come from your own unique experiences.
If you’re getting started and can’t think of any Common App essay ideas, try brainstorming without answering one of the prompts. The most important part about the Common Application essay is that it showcases a part of your identity that the admissions team won’t glean from your GPA or scores.
In the next few sections, we’ll go over the prompts for the Common App essays. For each of the Common App essay prompts, we’ll offer Common App essay tips. We’ll discuss how you can approach the Common App essays, including some advice on structure, tone, topic choice, and more. Additionally, we’ll look at some Common App essay ideas and the Common App essay requirements.
Common App Essay #1: Share your background
The first of the Common App essays asks you to share something significant about your background. Here’s the first of the Common App prompts:
All of the Common App essays will allow for a degree of customization. As long as essays address the Common App essay prompts—and stay within the Common App essay word limit—there is no limit to possible topics. In fact, when you read Common App essay examples, you’ll see a ton of variation .
The first of the Common App essay prompts is particularly open to interpretation. For some students, this can be exciting. However, for others, the first of the Common App essay prompts might feel a little overwhelming. So, if you want a more direct question, you might be better served by one of the other prompts.
How to approach this prompt
If you have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is deeply meaningful to you, here’s the place to talk about it!
As with all prompts for the Common App essays, there’s no right answer: maybe you were raised Orthodox Jewish. Perhaps you attended a white majority school as a person of color. Or maybe you learned to play the oboe at 4 years old and have since released an oboe EP on Soundcloud. As long as you share something that your application would be incomplete without, the sky’s the limit.
In general, as you write your Common App essays, think about what topics you might cover in your supplemental essays. Try to avoid writing about the same experience twice—after all, you only have so much space on your college applications. So, pick a topic for your main Common App essay with enough depth to fill the Common App essay word limit. Ideally, this topic won’t necessarily fit into a different section of your application.
Common App Essay #2: Navigating a challenge
Let’s look at some other prompts for Common App essays. The second of the Common App essay prompts relates to how you dealt with a challenge:
Comparing the different Common App essay prompts, this question is a bit narrower than the first. Is there a challenge, setback, or failure that you learned from? If you can’t come up with an answer to this question fairly quickly, you might want to select another of the Common App prompts.
Common App essay topics for this prompt
As compared to other Common App essay prompts, this one threatens to attract more cliché responses. Many students gravitate to similar topics: losses in sports, not getting a particular role in a performance, not winning a specific award.
If you choose a challenge like these, try to ensure your essay offers a new perspective. Many other students will likely select this question from the Common App essay prompts because they experienced a similar setback. In light of this, as you compare the different Common App essay prompts, think critically about potential college essay topics. Make sure your personal statement tells the admissions office something unique about how you face challenges.
The next of the prompts for Common App essays discusses a change in perspective. Read on to learn how to think about these types of Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #3: Questioning an idea
Has your perspective changed a lot in recent years? Have you had lengthy discussions with your parents or teachers about beliefs of theirs that you might disagree with? If so, the third option for your Common App essays might be a good one for you.
The third of the Common App essay prompts reads:
The best Common App essays often deal with subjects of personal change. These college essay topics may discuss shifts in perspective after learning something new or adjusting to different ideas and beliefs. Overall, colleges want to admit students who are intellectually curious and introspective. So, telling a story about how you developed can show that you embody those ideals.
Choosing the right idea
You don’t have to be politically active or reinvent the wheel to answer this question\ Maybe your guardian(s) is super-athletic and put you on the soccer team, but you fell in love with studio art instead. Challenging expectations is one method of challenging beliefs, so this could be a good framework to discuss your values.
To recap: a strong theme to touch on in any one of these Common App essays is a change in perspective. You can (and should!) also highlight your development in any of the Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #4: The gratitude essay
Another prompt that students can choose for their Common App essays is the gratitude essay:
This prompt was one of the new Common App essay prompts. It was originally released as one of the Common App essay prompts 2021.
Like some of the other Common App essay prompts, this prompt is fairly open-ended. It provides a chance to reflect on the positive aspects in your life. This prompt also lets you show that you are introspective and humble.
In the Common App essay prompts 2021, this essay replaced a prompt that asked about a problem you would like to solve. The Common App essay prompts 2021 were adjusted to include this prompt in order to “bring some joy into [each student’s] application experience.”
A word of caution
There is one potential pitfall of choosing the gratitude essay over the other Common App essay prompts. This prompt lends itself to focusing too much on someone other than yourself. Remember, good college essays will always center the writer’s identity and experiences.
Even if your essay is about how much a family member has sacrificed for you, remember that you are the one applying to college. Focus more on the second part of the prompt: how has your gratitude affected or motivated you?
Remember, Common App essays are a way to communicate something important about you to the people reading your application. That’s why it’s often referred to as the personal statement—it’s about you!
Common App Essay Prompt #5: A moment of personal growth
Like the second of the Common App prompts, this next question relates to personal growth or change:
The fifth of the Common App prompts asks about an inflection point in your life: a push to grow and shift perspectives. Like the other prompts, this one depends on introspection. Indeed, a key takeaway of these Common App essay tips, is that there’s never too much self-reflection.
Compared to the other Common App prompts, this one also lets you cover something not mentioned elsewhere in your application. Certainly, it’s less likely that answers to this question will pertain solely to one extracurricular or award. In other words, this personal statement topic can be a great place to tell the admissions team something new.
Next, let’s move onto the final two Common App prompts and offer a few more Common App essay tips.
Common App Essay Prompt #6: What captivates you?
Another of the more open-ended Common App prompts, this Common Application question has endless answers. Essays could cover something as straightforward as your potential college major or as non-academic as your favorite episode of Survivor.
Let’s take a look:
The sixth of the Common App prompts asks about what excites you. This isn’t restricted to lofty academic pursuits, either. With that said, a well-composed essay will reveal something about your values or thought process through your interest.
This prompt gives you a chance to go into detail about a passion, whether it be broad or niche, academic or cultural. The best college admissions essays will highlight something that isn’t present anywhere else in the application. Where else can you explain in excruciating detail your lifelong goal of building the tallest Rube Goldberg machine?
Common App Essay #7: A topic of your choice
Now, we’ve reached the last of the Common App prompts: a topic of your choice.
With this personal statement option, remember that it still must be exactly that: a personal statement. It should be about your unique way of navigating the world.
You might think that you could just submit your award-winning English class essay about the early feminist novel The Awakening . However, unless you discuss how its 1899 societal expectations of femininity affects how you interact with your family today… reconsider. The most important of our Common App essay tips is that above all else, this essay needs to be about you .
Therefore, if you think this Common App prompt is the one for you, make sure you’ve considered every other personal statement prompt first. Don’t think of this prompt as a way to get out of talking about yourself. Instead, use this prompt to talk about a part of yourself that the other questions aren’t reaching. The Common App essay questions are constructed to help you think about your life. In other words, don’t dismiss them just because you can’t think of an answer right away.
Keeping the personal in personal statement
When thinking about answering this question, ask yourself: is this essay a “personal statement?” Does it tell the admissions committee something they don’t know about me? Does it demonstrate something unique or dynamic about my identity, upbringing, values, or perspective?
Now that we’ve gone over all of the Common App prompts, let’s go into more detail on how you can write a great college essay. We’ll discuss some Common App essay ideas and provide some brainstorming exercises to jumpstart your writing process. We’ll also review more Common App essay tips, some Common App essay requirements, and other college application requirements. Lastly, we’ll recommend more resources like Common App essay examples that you might need to tackle the Common Application.
How to Write a Great College Essay
We’ve reviewed each of the Common App essay prompts and discussed the Common App essay requirements. Next, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips. You can also apply these guidelines to your Coalition App essay and other college application requirements.
Every great Common App essay starts with a clear strategy. Again, there are no new Common App essay prompts this year—in fact, they haven’t changed since the Common App essay prompts 2021. In short, rather than waiting for any new Common App essay prompts, you can start considering college essay topics now. After all, the earlier you start working on your Common App essay, the stronger it will be.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal process to help you write the best college admissions essays you can. Use this structure to help you craft strong Common App essays:
Looking for strong college essay topics? Start with a free-write. Choose one of the Common App essay prompts that speaks to you. Then, set a timer for ten minutes and just start writing .
It won’t be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. The goal of this exercise isn’t to write your final personal statement—it’s to flex your writing muscles. Don’t stop, edit, or censor yourself. Instead, just try to represent your experiences in a meaningful and authentic way. At this stage, just get ideas into words without worrying about quality or the Common App essay word limit.
Once you’re finished, take a look at what you wrote. What stands out to you? Are there any elements of your free-write you might want to explore in a draft?
Determining a College Essay Topic: Reflection Exercises to Try
If you’re facing writer’s block, try choosing one of the Common App essay prompts and thinking about its central theme. For instance, for the second of the Common App essay prompts, you might choose the idea of challenges .
Then, grab a sheet of paper, set a timer, and start writing down any meaningful challenges you’ve faced. Feel free to connect them to other elements of your life, including ways you’ve grown or changed. Don’t focus on the writing—instead, just try to think about potential college essay topics. Once the timer ends, evaluate whether anything you’ve listed might be worth drafting for your Common App essays. You can also use this strategy to tackle other college supplemental essays.
Once you’ve decided on a potential topic, it’s time to outline.
Good Common App essays often start with a “hook”—an engaging opening that grabs the reader’s interest. Often, the best hooks come from personal stories. One reliable structure for Common App essays opens with a personal story, then connecting it to your identity or character. You might then return to your original anecdote in your final paragraph or line.
In your outline, include your story and your “stakes”—that is, why your story highlights something critical about who you are. Your writing skills won’t matter if your personal statement isn’t, well, personal.
As you outline, feel free to be as descriptive or minimal as you’d like. Above all, your outline should help you write a draft—don’t craft a beautiful outline if it won’t ultimately serve your writing process. Once again, you can follow the same process in your school-specific supplemental essays.
Write a draft
Don’t feel pressured to write your Common App essay sequentially. For instance, if you know exactly how to approach the anecdote but are struggling with your opening line, feel free to jump ahead. You can always return to fill in the gaps of your personal statement.
As you draft, remember the Common App essay requirements, including the Common App essay word limit of 650 words. While the Common App essay word limit gives you more space than most supplemental essays, it’s still relatively short.
Often, leaving a few days between writing sessions can give you a useful perspective. After all, Common App essays (like any good college essay) won’t appear overnight. And since the college process is so competitive, you want your essay to stand out .
Each time you open your Common App essay, take a look at what you’ve written so far. Does it make sense and flow neatly? More importantly, does it use clear language and strong storytelling to highlight something important about your identity? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.
Revise, revise, revise
After you complete your Common App essay draft, put it away for a day or two. Then, return to your document to start revising .
Of course, you should edit for grammar, syntax, and spelling. However, a solid revision process will take a fair amount more work. As you read over your Common App essay, take a look at every single sentence. Does it contribute to your personal statement’s overall message? Are there any places where your language is clunky or redundant? Since the Common App essay word limit isn’t high, every word counts.
When you revise, pay careful attention to the beginning and end of your Common App essay. Remember, the opening of your essay gives Admissions Officers their first impression of you.
Additionally, as you edit, return to the Common App essay prompts. While the Common App essay prompts may be weighed differently than school-specific supplements, you should still address them comprehensively. So, don’t neglect the Common App essay requirements—namely, that you answer the prompt.
Finally, make sure that your essay highlights something critical about you. Above all, make sure your essay shows admissions teams who you are. Don’t waste your time with flowery language if it doesn’t serve your point—especially given the Common App essay word limit.
Get a second pair of eyes
Once you’ve edited your draft yourself, consider asking a trusted adult to look over your Common App essay. This could be a teacher, parent, counselor, or advisor.
Often, a second reader will notice things that you won’t. They can help you identify unclear language, fix lingering typos, and ensure your story comes through as strongly as possible. This can also help you meet the Common App essay word limit.
Of course, your Common App essay should be entirely your own work. That is to say, while you can absolutely ask for outside guidance, no one else should be writing your essay for you.
Finalize and submit!
After you receive feedback, complete a final round of revisions on your own. Ask yourself: if I read this essay, would I want to meet the student who wrote it?
When you feel ready, upload your essay using your Common App login. If you need help navigating your Common App login, you can visit the Common App YouTube channel for useful tips. Since there are no new Common App prompts this year, it’s never too early to start brainstorming. Plus, abandoned Common App essay ideas might be a great fit for supplemental essays.
What are some good college essay topics?
Overall, there are plenty of good college essay topics out there. You won’t get the chance to submit multiple Common App essays, so you should choose a topic that means something to you.
Here are some Common App essay tips to help you choose a topic:
Common App Essay Tips
1. discuss a challenge that you overcame. .
Maybe you developed a love and talent for poetry despite having severe dyslexia. Or maybe you conquered your fear of public speaking when asked to give a speech about a cause that mattered to you. The challenge itself doesn’t entirely matter; it’s about what this challenge meant to you.
If you write about a challenge, keep several things in mind. First, make sure the challenge you choose matters to you—that is, it should highlight a critical element of your identity and development. At the end of the day, good Common App essays will illustrate how the writer encountered a challenge and came out the other side.
2. Write about an experience that broadened your perspective.
Common App essays can also center around meaningful experiences. For example, maybe your first meeting with your extended family in India provided a new understanding of your heritage. Or maybe a year of volunteering at a children’s hospital taught you what it meant to find joy even amid pain and suffering. Again, the possibilities are endless; just think about which experiences have made you the person you are.
If you write about an external experience, a word of caution: remember that Common App essays should always come back to the writer’s development. For instance, if you’re writing about volunteering in a clinic, don’t spend all of your time discussing the patients’ specific stories. Ultimately, your essay should center around you.
3. Highlight a key feature of your identity or upbringing.
Good Common App essays will teach the admissions team something they don’t know about a given student. Rather than focusing on an interest you highlight elsewhere, you might write your Common App essay simply about who you are.
In this context, “identity” can mean anything: race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or religion, to name a few. Choose a part of your identity that matters to you and write about it with passion and authenticity. Additionally, to make your Common App essay more engaging, you might use an anecdote to introduce your topic.
Overall, students can write good Common App essays about a wide variety of college essay topics. Regardless of which of the Common App prompts you choose, a meaningful topic can make for a powerful personal statement. There are many ways to write strong Common App essays. Above all, be authentic and tell your story, all while staying within the Common App essay word limit.
What should you not write in a college essay?
As you choose between the Common App prompts, you might wonder what bad Common App essays look like. So, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips about what not to write.
Most important, Common App essays should show you in a positive light. So, you should not include any explicit language or discussions of illegal activity. You should also, of course, refrain from including anything that a reader might deem offensive. These are all bad topics for Common App essays.
Avoiding the overly personal
As you consider Common App essay ideas, you should also be wary of just how personal your personal statement is. For instance, writers generally avoid overly intense discussions of traumatic events and mental health topics. Indeed, while often personally meaningful, poorly-written essays about these topics can work against you. Given the rigors of life at top universities, essays should assure Admissions Officers that you can face—if not overcome—challenges.
In general, if you wouldn’t discuss it at dinner, you may want to think twice before putting it in your Common App essay. Common App essays should be personal, but not to the point of discomfort. Think about this as you choose between the Common App prompts.
You should also avoid writing Common App essays about high school drama. Doubtless changing friendships and relationships can influence your development and seem ripe for writing about. However, admissions committees likely won’t be interested.
Highlight your strengths
Your essay should also suggest that you would make a positive contribution to any college campus. In light of that, make sure your essay portrays your development in a positive light. For instance, you shouldn’t write about how you learned that you can’t rely on other people. Instead, use the Common App essay prompts to highlight how you’ll be a good community member on your future campus.
Finally, try to avoid clichés, such as the “sports injury essay” or similarly overused Common App essay topics. This doesn’t mean you can’t use these topics at all. However, if you choose to do so, make sure you spin them in an interesting way. After all, admissions teams will read thousands of Common App essays, and you want yours to stand out. Choose one of the Common App prompts that will let you do just that.
For more guidance, you can always read Common App essay examples. These can help you get a better understanding of the Common App essay requirements.
Common Application Essay Timeline
As we’ve discussed, the earlier you start thinking about your Common App essay, the easier the process will be. However, this doesn’t mean you should start drafting your essays during your sophomore year of high school. You’ll grow and change throughout high school, and you’ll likely find many great Common App essay topics along the way.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal timeline for brainstorming, drafting, and submitting your Common App essay.
Use the timeline above in planning your writing process, from choosing one of the Common App essay prompts to pressing “submit.” You likely won’t create your Common App login until August of your senior year when you apply to college. However, you can still start preparing your responses to the Common App essay prompts early. That way, you’ll have time to write the best college admissions essays you can.
More Common App Resources from CollegeAdvisor.com
Looking for more Common App essay tips, Common App essay ideas, and other resources on the Common App prompts? CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help you tackle all of your college application requirements.
Watch this free webinar for more about the Common Application, from Common App essays to the extracurriculars list, recommendations, and other key materials. You can also check out this expert-led webinar for a deep dive into the Common Application. There, you’ll find even more advice on writing Common App essays as you apply to college. We also have a comprehensive guide to acing the Common App.
How to ace the Common App this college admissions season
For more Common App essay ideas, check out our masterclass on how to choose Common App essay topics.
CollegeAdvisor Masterclass: Brainstorming Your Common App Personal Statement Topic￼
Additionally, you can read an overview of the Common App essay for juniors written by one of our advisors. We also have plenty of Common App essay examples available on our website . Since there are no new Common App prompts since the Common App essay prompts 2021, you can use these Common App essay examples for this year’s Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay Prompts 2023‒2024: Final Thoughts
Overall, most colleges will accept the Common Application. This makes your Common App essay one of the most critical components of your college applications.
After all, how many Common App essays are required? Just one. So, your Common App essay needs to highlight you in the best possible light. The best college admissions essays can make a huge difference in the application review process.
We hope this guide has given you the tools to write a strong Common App essay that will impress top schools. However, if you want to make the most of your Common App essays, nothing beats personalized support. When you register with CollegeAdvisor.com, you’ll be matched with a hand-picked Admissions Expert who will guide you through every step of the application process, from building your college list to drafting your Common App essay. Click here to schedule a free meeting and learn how CollegeAdvisor can help you maximize your admissions odds.
This guide was written by Rachel Kahn and Abbie Sage. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.
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The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted
If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.
In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?
What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?
Common Application Essay FAQs
What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.
The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.
The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.
Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.
Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay
Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.
How Do You Write a Common App Essay?
The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”
Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:
- What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
- Why are you being asked to write this essay?
College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.
So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.
Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .
And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.
That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.
(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)
1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them
The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.
The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.
Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:
- share, explain and describe a narrative, and
- reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.
Let’s take a look.
Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story
Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
- Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.
Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame
Prompt: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
- Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.
Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged
Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
- Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.
Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you
Prompt: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
- Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?
Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth
Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
- Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.
Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time
Prompt: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
- Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.
Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice
Prompt: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
- Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
- Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.
Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.
This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.
Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.
Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.
Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.
3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)
This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.
As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.
4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively
The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.
The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.
And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.
Let’s talk about those three pieces now.
The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.
So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.
Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.
This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.
That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.
It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.
Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:
- I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
- The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
- An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.
As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.
A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:
- Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
- Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
- Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.
Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.
Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.
This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?
5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly
It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.
Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.
For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.
And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.
6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone
Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!
Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).
You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.
7) Revise and Proofread
This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.
And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.
A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!
What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?
Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.
Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.
But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.
If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.
Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.
What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?
There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.
But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.
Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:
Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:
During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.
It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.
We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.
Areas for Improvement in Version #1:
- It lacks a compelling hook.
- The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
- It could use more vivid and evocative language.
- It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
- It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).
Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.
Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:
My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.
Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.
My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.
My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.
Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.
Strengths of Version #2:
- It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
- It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
- It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
- It focuses on one specific incident.
- It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
- It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
- It has a logical and cohesive flow.
- It is highly personal while also polished and professional.
Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.
How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?
Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.
Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.
Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?
Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .
Do I need a title for the Common App essay?
A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.
Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?
All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.
For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:
Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.
If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .
There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.
We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?
Comment below, and good luck!
Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !
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The Length Requirements for the Common Application Essay in 2020-21
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Students applying to colleges that use the Common Application will typically need to respond to one of seven essay prompts . For the 2020-21 application cycle, the length limit for the essay is 650 words. That limit includes the essay title, notes, and any other text that you include in the essay text box.
Fast Facts: The Common Application Length Requirements
- Your essay needs to be between 250 and 650 words long.
- You can't go over the limit—the online form will cut you off at 650 words.
- The length includes the title, notes, and any other text you include in the online form.
- Use your 650 words to tell a focused story and help the admissions folks get to know you.
History of the Common Application Length Limit
For years the Common Application had no length limit, and applicants and counselors frequently debated whether a tight 450-word essay was a wiser approach than a detailed 900-word piece. In 2011, that decision was taken away as the Common Application moved to a relatively short 500-word limit. With the August 2013 release of CA4 (the current version of the Common Application), the guidelines changed once again. CA4 set the limit at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words. And unlike earlier versions of the Common Application, the length limit is now enforced by the application form. No longer can applicants attach an essay that goes over the limit. Instead, applicants will need to enter the essay into a text box that counts words and prevents entering anything beyond 650 words.
What Can You Accomplish in 650 Words?
Even if you take advantage of the full length available to you, keep in mind that 650 words is not a long essay. It's roughly the equivalent of a two-page, double-spaced essay. It's about the same length as this article on essay length. Most essays tend to be between three and eight paragraphs depending on the applicant's writing style and essay strategy (essays with dialogue, of course, might have far more paragraphs).
As you plan your essay, you definitely want to keep the length requirement in mind. Many applicants attempt to do too much with their essays and then struggle to edit them down to 650 words. Realize the purpose of the personal statement is not to tell your life story or to give an exhaustive overview of all of your accomplishments. Let your list of extracurricular activities, academic record, letters of recommendation, and supplemental essays and materials show your range of accomplishments. The personal statement is not the place for long lists or catalogs of achievement.
To write an engaging and effective 650 word or shorter essay, you need to have a sharp focus. Narrate a single event, or illuminate a single passion or talent. Whichever essay prompt you choose, make sure you zero in on a specific example that you narrate in an engaging and thoughtful way. Allow enough space for self reflection so that whatever your topic is you spend at least some time talking about its significance to you.
Again, use the essay to narrate an engaging story. Make sure it highlights something you care about deeply, and be sure to provide a window into your interests or personality that isn't already obvious from the rest of your application.
A Final Word About Essay Length
With the primary Common Application essay, you will need to come in at 650 words or fewer. However, you will find that most supplemental essays on the Common Application have different length guidelines, and colleges that don't use the Common Application will have differing length requirements. No matter what the circumstances, make sure you follow the guidelines. If an essay should be 350 words, don't write 370. Learn more about some of the issues related to essay length in this article: College Application Essay Length Limits .
Finally, keep in mind that what you say and how you say it is far more important than whether you have 550 words or 650 words. Be sure to attend to your essay's style , and in most cases you're going to want to avoid these ten bad essay topics . If you've said all you have to say in 500 words, don't try to pad your essay to make it longer. Regardless of length, and even if yours is a transfer essay , the best writing will tell a compelling story, provide insight to your character and interests, and are written with crisp and engaging prose.
- Ideal College Application Essay Length
- How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be?
- The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts
- Common Application Essay, Option 1: Share Your Story
- "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"—Sample Common Application Essay, Option #4
- How to Ace Your University of Wisconsin Personal Statements
- Should an Application Essay Be Single-Spaced or Double-Spaced?
- Common Application Essay Option 2 Tips: Learning from Failure
- Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place
- Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth
- 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem
- Common Application Essay Option 3 Tips: Challenging a Belief
- Private School Application Essay Tips
- Addressing Diversity in a College Application Essay
- 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue
- Tips for an Admissions Essay on an Influential Person
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Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, complete strategies: common app essay prompts (2023-24).
You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don't let the fact that it doesn't fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping-off points to help you start brainstorming , not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.
Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts
The Common App changes its prompts fairly frequently , so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions . If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approaches they did.
This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.
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4 Tips For Finding Your Best Common App Essay Topic
As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your Common App essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.
First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it— no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about .
Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee . For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience ;shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it ;taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).
Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you . This advice might sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays, it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.
#2: Take Your Time
Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write so you don't feel rushed into jotting down the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. We recommend starting the writing process two months in advance of your first college application deadline .
On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.
#3: Avoid Repetition
Your essay should illustrate something about you beyond what's in the rest of your application . Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it.
A college essay is not a resume —it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.
#4: Get Specific
The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you.
Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story . These would make for very different essays, even though they're on basically the same topic.
Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel as if they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are.
Take a look at this example sentence:
General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.
Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.
The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective—it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more.
The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.
Breaking Down the 2022-23 Common App Essay Prompts
Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the 2022-23 Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.
Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts . The first is describing something you did or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you . No essay is complete without addressing both sides of the topic.
Next, it had to have had some sort of real impact so you can explain how your gratefulness affected you. This means that, even if the event itself was small, it had to have brought about some sort of lasting change in how you live your life.
To start, brainstorm times when something went better than expected/you were happily surprised by an outcome/you were especially grateful/someone restored your faith in humanity. Remember, this has to be, overall, a positive situation, as you're being asked about an event that made you happy or grateful. This is in contrast to prompts 2 and 3 which focus more on challenges you've faced.
Once you have your list, eliminate any instances that didn't affect or motivate you. The key part of this prompt is explaining the impact of your gratitude, so you need to write about a time when gratitude made you do something you normally wouldn't have done. This could be focusing on self-care/self-improvement, paying it forward by helping someone else, shifting your values, etc. Colleges want to see how you changed because of this event.
For example, say you decide to write about your first time traveling through an airport alone. You're not sure where to go, and all the workers look busy and like they're just waiting for their break. You're wandering around, lost, too shy to ask someone for help, when a gruff-looking employee comes up and asks if you need something. When you admit you don't know how to find your gate, they take the time to walk you to it, show you which screen to watch so you know when to board, and tell you to come get them if you need any more help. It's much more help than you thought anyone would give you.
Because of that person's actions (and this is the key part), you now always keep an eye out for people who look lost or confused and try to help them because you know how intimidating it can be to be out of your depth. You also know that many times people feel embarrassed to ask for help, so you need to make the first move to help them. If you have a specific example of you helping someone in need as a result, including that will make the essay even stronger.
Avoid scenarios where you were the first person to help another. The prompt is asking about a time someone was kind to you, and then you reacted in response to that. You need to have the grateful moment first, then the change in behavior.
Additionally, avoid examples where someone treated you badly but you rose above it. This is a situation where someone was kind to you, and you decided to keep that kindness going.
Common App Essay Prompt 6: Your Passion
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
This prompt is asking you to describe something you're intellectually passionate about .
But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic . Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems?
Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge .
Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you can prove that you are self-motivated and resourceful .
Pretty much any topic you're really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just as long as you can put can put an intellectual spin on it and demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic.
So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain.
Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good.
If you say you love black holes but actually hate them and tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will definitely come through.
Common App Essay Prompt 7: Your Choice
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
You can write about anything for this one!
Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt .
However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay.
If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!
Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for AP English!
However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead.
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The Common App Essay Questions: 5 Key Takeaways
We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.
#5: Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write
There is no single right answer to these prompts , and if you try to find one, you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story—and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.
Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, such as volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes it'll speak for itself.
But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done; it's to show who you are .
Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality.
For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement .
Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well with our guides to asking for recommendations , writing about extracurriculars , taking the SAT , and researching colleges .
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 ;points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.
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Everything You Need to Know About the Common App
The journey towards a college degree starts with selecting and applying to various schools and universities, often more than one. Here are some tips for using the Common Application to apply to multiple colleges.
According to the College Board, most college counselors recommend that high school students fill out and submit five to eight college applications, each of which can have different requirements for essays, testing, transcripts, and recommendations. Keeping track of these details, as well as the application deadlines for each college, can be challenging. Even after submitting your applications, it’s not uncommon to wonder if you filled them out completely.
The good news is that a free application service exists that can help make applying to college easier, and it is called the Common Application or the Common App. In this article, we’ll explain what the Common App is, its benefits, and how to use it.
What Is the Common Application?
In 1975, 15 colleges got together to simplify the application and admission process. The result was the Common Application, a single application that students could send to multiple colleges.
Over the years, the Common App has evolved into an application platform and college admissions hub where students can research various colleges, find financial aid and scholarships, access university resources, find virtual mentors, and navigate their entire college application journey. A staggering 7 million applications were submitted through the Common App platform by more than 1 million students in 2022-2023 alone.
Which Colleges and Universities Accept the Common App?
Today, more than 1,000 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, including the Ivy League schools and some international institutions. While not every school accepts the Common App, at present, students can apply to universities in all 50 states and 20 countries through this platform.
How Can I Access the Common App?
Accessing the Common Application platform is easy and free for all students. Simply go to the Common App website or access it through the website of any of the colleges that accept it. Most colleges provide a link to the platform on their admissions or “how to apply” page. Students must pay the application fees required by the colleges or apply for a fee waiver.
When you enter the Common App, you will be asked to create a new account or log in. When you create your account, you’ll need to identify yourself as a first-year student, transfer student, education professional, parent, or another adult. This helps the Common App adjust the platform to your needs.
How to Fill out the Common App
The Common App provides a user-friendly interface for students to apply or transfer to universities and colleges. Below, we outline the main steps to filling out the Common App.
1. Create a List of Universities and Colleges
Within the Common Application, students can access information about many colleges they are interested in or thinking about applying to. The platform provides links to the websites and virtual tours of colleges that accept the Common App to make it easy to see what the campus looks like and review academic offerings and majors all in one place. You can add colleges to your Common App “My Colleges” list as you learn more about them.
2. UNDERSTAND EACH COLLEGE's REQUIREMENTS
Each college’s application has its own requirements. Some colleges require the submission of multiple transcripts, one or more recommendation letters, SAT or ACT scores, and essays, while others require some or none of these items.
It is essential to keep track of each application’s requirements so that the application you submit to each college is timely and satisfies the applicable requirements. See CollegeData’s Common App Guide for the application requirements for more than 900 Common App colleges in the U.S. The Common App website also contains the application requirements of more than 1,000 colleges worldwide, including:
- Early decision and early action deadlines
- Regular admission deadline
- Application fees
- Additional forms or portfolios
- Essays and/or writing supplements
- Number of recommendation letters from teachers and counselors
- School and mid-year report requirements
- SAT or ACT testing policy
3. ASK FOR RECOMMENDATIONS
Many colleges ask for one or more letters of recommendation from your teachers, guidance counselors, or others. Some schools may ask for two teacher recommendation letters, while others may require one teacher recommendation letter and one guidance counselor letter.
The Common Application makes it easy for you to request recommendations from your teachers and guidance counselors through its intuitive interface. Once you input their names and contact information, the Common App will send them an invitation to create an account, guide them through the recommendation form, and enable them to upload their recommendation letter to the Common App platform.
4. Complete Writing requirements
Many colleges ask applicants to submit essays with their application. Within the Common App, you will find:
- The Common App Personal Essay , which is an essay response to one of several prompts provided by the Common App.
- Writing Supplements , which may include shorter essays or other questions specific to a college.
- Optional COVID-19 and Natural Disasters Writing Prompt, in which students are free to describe how their lives were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, or other catastrophic events.
5. Submit Your Application
Once you have gathered all the required documents, completed your essays, and requested letters of recommendation and a copy of your high school transcript, you are ready to submit your applications. Be sure to complete and send your application by the deadline set by each school. While technical problems are rare, they do happen and thankfully the Common App has 24 x 7 technical support.
How to Write the Common App Essay
The Common App Essay is required by some, but not all, Common App colleges and can provide admissions officers with a window into your character, goals, and personality. The Common App provides seven essay prompts to choose from.
Here are the prompts for the 2023-2024 academic year.
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Find Out More About Colleges on CollegeData
The Common App makes it possible for students to use a unified application platform to apply to more than 1,000 colleges all across the U.S. and the globe. Before you consider using the Common App to apply to college, start researching potential colleges with CollegeData’s College Search tool.
Tips for using one application to apply to many schools.
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Accepted to college before applying: How Common App is recruiting students
More than 300,000 people this month received acceptance letters from at least one college or university in their state − before they had even completed their applications.
The prospective students unknowingly qualified for the direct admissions program led by the Common App , the nation’s most used and widely accepted college application. The program – involving 70 schools across 28 states – examines incomplete applications and doles out acceptances to those who meet certain GPA and test requirements set by each participating college; live in poverty-stricken areas or whose parents have not gone to college.
The batch acceptances from participating colleges come as undergraduate enrollment rates may be coming out of a decline that's persisted since the pandemic and months after the Supreme Court ruling to reverse affirmative action , which effectively gutted race-conscious admission practices.
Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse found that college enrollment is up overall this fall, with Black, Hispanic and Asian students making up most of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment growth. And new data from the Common App shows applications for enrollment next fall are greater than before the pandemic too.
"The goal here is to have every student in Common App feel not only worthy but welcomed," Jenny Rickard, CEO of the Common App, told USA TODAY. "It's to inspire them to explore the many opportunities that they have ahead of them."
After the Supreme Court ruling, What can prospective college students expect?
Rising popularity of direct admissions programs
Direct admissions programs are popular among institutions seeking to drive up enrollment and for students who, because of direct admissions programs, can bypass lengthy admission processes that often require test scores, essays and letters of recommendation. These hurdles, which can be diminished by parental guidance, private tutors and other costly programs, disproportionately affect low-income students and those whose parents did not go to college or university, said Jennifer Delaney, a professor of higher education at the University of Illinois.
The number of direct admissions programs has surged over the last decade. In 2015, Idaho became one of the first states to introduce the program – proactively admitting all public high school seniors to at least six in-state colleges and universities each year.
This year, Georgia introduced a similar initiative in which all public high school seniors are to be sent a letter notifying them of what in-state colleges and universities they will receive acceptances from if they decide to apply. Minnesota recently tapped thousands of students to participate in its pilot direct admissions program . And Niche, a for-profit education technology company that says it helps find and enroll students in the right schools, has expanded its program to 68 colleges.
Because of their proactive approach, Rickard said direct admissions programs effectively combat the misconception that most colleges have low acceptance rates, which she said can prevent prospective students from applying in the first place.
"That's what the narrative is, but it's not true," Rickard said. About 90% of the more than 1,000 schools that use the Common App each year accept more than half of its applicants.
Delaney, who has co-authored several research articles on the impacts of direct admissions, compared the admissions process to dating and said direct admissions reverse the typical roles of students and colleges.
"Historically, it's been students who'd go out and search for schools," she said. "We've now entered a moment where we've got robust enough data systems, and schools can search for students and say to them 'Hey, we know you've got the qualifications. You can get in here, and there's a place for you if you want to come.'"
Legacy admissions are being rolled back: Here’s which colleges have changed policies
College costs remain largest hindrance for prospective students
An article Delaney co-wrote in August, and which used data from the Common App, showed students who received acceptances were more likely to submit a college application and were nearly twice as likely to apply to the institution where they were offered direct admissions "signaling their intent to 'claim their place' and enroll," the study said. These impacts were much higher for minority, first-generation and low-income students.
However, the study did not find evidence that the program increased the number of students who followed through and enrolled at the schools where they were accepted. This, Delaney and Rickard say, is likely the fault of the largest obstacle in the way of many college-seeking young people – the hefty price tag .
Between 1980 and 2020, the average price of tuition, fees and housing for an undergraduate degree increased by 169%, far outpacing wages, according to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
And the cost of tuition continues to increase . For the 2023-24 school year, the cost of tuition at public four-year colleges rose 2.5% from the year prior, averaging $11,260, according to the College Board. For private four-year institutions, tuition and fees rose 4%, to an average of $41,540.
Both Delaney and Rickard said the next version of direct admissions programs could be coupled with scholarships to address the burdensome cost of college.
"Proactive admissions work, but they're only a nudge," Delaney said. "It's not a silver bullet."
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- What is the Common App?
- Filling Out The Common Application
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- Choosing a Common App Essay Topic
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- Writing The Common App Essay Introduction
Writing The Common App Essay Conclusion
- Common App Essay Format
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- Common App Essay Editing
- Common App Essay Tips
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- How To Write A College Essay
- College Essay Examples
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You’re on the home straight. The introduction and the main paragraphs for your Common Application essay are written. You’ve just got the conclusion to go.
Don’t flag now, even if you feel like giving up - this is a key section and needs focus and concentration. Follow these top tips to make your conclusion a sucess:
1. Make it memorable
An essay conclusion should aim to stay in the reader’s mind whether that’s because it’s a great story, the thought of what may come next or you’ve left a resounding impression.
It’s about ending an essay with an actual conclusion not just tailing off or drifting, as the main story has been told. Your essay conclusion should summarize what’s been said and aim to complete your story. For example if you’re writing about auditioning for a school play and being turned down, write what you’ve learned from this and either how you won the audition this year through determination and perseverance or how you’re going to continue to strive for that acting part in the next few months. As well as summarizing your main points, make reference back to your introduction and your key outcomes. Don’t repeat the same words but write them in a new way. For example if your introduction started with:
“ After passing my driving test at the second attempt, my independence was less than I imagined. ”
And the main points featured helping friends and neighbors who couldn’t drive, ferrying your siblings to their out of school activities and using the car to arrive at your weekend job earlier; then your conclusion could say,
“ During the last 12 months of driving independently, I’ve gained far more than just the ability to drive from A to B. I’ve helped others less mobile than myself and my employer is impressed that I’m showing up energized for my weekend job and willing to learn more. ” It is also worth checking back over each paragraph at least twice and making sure any loose ends are resolved in your conclusion, otherwise the reader (the admissions tutor) may have a query in their mind about “what happened to x?”
2. Think ahead
Try to end your conclusion with a look forward into the future. What are you planning next? For example if your weekends were spent volunteering at the local Hispanic community center, chatting through housing rights then your conclusion could say: “ During my 6 month volunteer work at the Hispanic community center, I’ve come to realize just how valuable it’s been for people to have someone who will listen and understand them as an individual. I’m aiming to continue this at College by forming a Hispanic College student club, set up and run by students for students. ” If you’ve written your essay about a science experiment or you’ve asked family or friends to take a research survey on a specific topic, your conclusion must state what you analyzed and found out, not just that you’ve completed your survey. If it’s possible (and it may not be) leave your reader with a thought provoking question about the future. For example if you’ve written about the prejudice you’ve encountered as a woman while trying to set up an all-women’s American football team at high school, ask the reader in your conclusion…
” How far would you go to support equality and your students? Would you champion the right to have an all-women’s student football team at College? ”
3. Avoid making jokes
Humor is a great skill to include in writing a conclusion, but please be careful.
It is better to leave it out, than try too hard and it falls flat.
A second check of your conclusion by family and friends will let you know whether it’s worked or not. Above all else your conclusion should be passionate and show how much you still love life and can’t wait to start college.
4. Get feedback
When you have a full draft of your essay, reread it and make any amendments as you see fit, and then pass it on to family and friends to ask for their opinions.
It's important to carry out at least several rounds of revision by third parties, to ensure your essay is as polished as it can be. Asking other people to look at it for you provides a level of objectivity that, as the writer, you will probably not be able to provide yourself.
If you're still not entirely happy with your first draft, you can check out our library of Common App Essay Examples for inspiration on how you might improve your own essay.
For more tips and advice on putting together your common application for college, please see:
- Common Essay Prompts
- Choosing A Common App Essay Topic
- Common App Essay Introduction
- Editing Your Essay
How Long Is The Common App Essay
- April 10, 2020
- Essay Guides and Topics
Here's What We'll Cover
The common application essay is a crucial essay that will determine your entry into an institution of higher learning. This type of essay has a specific length within which you need to present your ideas and prove your suitability for the institution. The common app essay presents a challenge for many students. In this post, we will guide you on how to write a common application essay.
How Many Words Is The Common App Essay?
The common app essay will limit you on how many words you can write. The length of the common app essay is adjusted several times over time. However, the general range at the moment is between 250 and 650 words.
When you apply for the common application essay online, you will not be able to submit the essay if it does not meet the 250 words marks. The same is true if it exceeds this figure. It is, therefore, essential to keep the word count somewhere within this range.
What Is The Appropriate Length Of The Common App Essay
This question will elicit different types of responses depending on who you ask. However, most experts that you consider the writing prompts available in the common app essay. Each year, the board that receives these applications will have different writing prompts available. Other times, the prompts remain the same for a couple of years.
Considering the writing prompts will help you decide what kind of information will go into the essay that you want to write. Additionally, you will also have an idea of the approach to use when writing the common app essay.
However, the general average for most essays is about 550 words. This figure ensures that you can have a captivating introduction, a thorough body, and a conclusion that sums up all your main ideas.
What Can You Expect From The Common App Essay
The common application essay’s main intention is to understand who you are why an admission into college would suit you. Some of the questions the essay expects you to answer are as follows.
- Who are you?
- How you got where you are?
- Unique details about you
- What is most important to you?
Who Are You?
You need to state clearly who you are and the personality traits that make you the person that you are. The answer that you provide for this question allows the reviewers to figure out if you have the traits that would suit the student population in your target college. Additionally, if you answer this question well, it will say a lot about how you can express yourself.
How You Got Where You Are?
This question seeks to know the journey that got you to writing your college application essay. In this question, the reviewer will want to know about your experiences in high school and other levels of learning that contributed to your academic excellence.
Unique Details About You
This type of question expects you to illustrate those traits in you that you feel would contribute most positively to the college you want to join. For example, if you are good at public speaking, the college will want to know this in your common app essay. Focus on the strengths that make you stand out and illustrate the same by highlighting instances where that came out prominently.
What Is Most Important To You?
In this question, the college needs to know what you treasure most. For example, going by the strength highlighted above on public speaking, you can mention that communication is what matters most to you.
Structure Of The Common App Essay
The essay does not necessarily follow the five-paragraph essay format. When it comes to this type of essay, you can suit the body to your liking depending on the issue you are addressing in the essay. This freedom allows you to tailor the essay to the number of paragraphs that you feel will be most convincing. However, the introduction and conclusion must be present.
The general length of the essay is between 250 and 650 words. This type of essay offers you flexibility in terms of its structure. The advantage of this is that you do not have to stick to a specific number of paragraphs in the body. Below is an example of a common app essay.
An example of a common app essay
How many words is the common app essay 2019?
The 2019 version of the common application has a minimum length of 250 words, with the limit being 650 words.
Is my common app essay too short?
Your common app essay will be too short if you have written below 250 words. Take note that the minimum length of a common app essay is 250words, and the limit is 650words.
How long is a 650-word essay?
A 650 word-essay that is double spaced, Times New Roman, and the font size is 12 should be two and a quarter page.
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Your Complete Guide to Spotify Wrapped, 2023
S potify keeps receipts of what songs and artists you’ve listened to. And by year-end, the Swedish streaming giant packages your user data—be it your countless replays of Taylor Swift’s re-recorded 1989 album or BTS member Jungkook’s boppy solos—in what has since become one of its most successful and most shareable marketing ploys on social media: Spotify Wrapped.
Since its inception in 2016, many have replicated Spotify Wrapped’s campaign of individualized, annual analysis of users’ behavior: not only streaming platforms like Apple Music, but also for a variety of other industries like the Washington Post , Duolingo, Reddit, and Nintendo. Wrapped presents that analysis in customizable, jazzy graphics primed for Instagram Stories, adding another layer of authenticity and character that makes it such a viral hit.
The popularity of Spotify Wrapped has ballooned over the years: in 2017, there 30 million Spotify users accessing it, and in 2021, there were more than 120 million. That year, nearly 60 million Spotify Wrapped stories and graphics were also shared across social media platforms. The year 2022 is no different, over 156 million users engaged with Wrapped, a spokesperson tells TIME. It’s become so popular that people—even U.S. senators and Australian federal police —have piggybacked on it, and made memes of the year-end phenomenon .
With the launch of 2023 Spotify Wrapped, here’s what you need to know.
How to access Spotify Wrapped
To get the Spotify Wrapped experience, users must be subscribed to Spotify. Opening the latest version of the app is more than likely to lead users to Spotify Wrapped directly once it’s out.
But don’t fret if it doesn’t: Spotify users on desktop and on mobile can simply type in “Wrapped” in the search bar, or find Spotify’s Wrapped button in the home page.
You can also click here .
More From TIME
The math behind spotify wrapped.
Spotify Wrapped collects data all throughout the year. A Spotify spokesperson says data used for the 2023 Wrapped spans streamed content from January to an unspecified date “a few weeks prior to launch”—Nov. 29 for this year. “We aim to leave the cutoff date as late as possible to create a truly personalized experience,” the spokesperson tells TIME. The period puts songs and albums released earlier in the year to an advantage.
For a song or podcast to be considered streamed, a user must listen to it for 30 seconds or more. The three most awaited year-end statistics—top albums, top songs, and top artists—are all based on aggregated stream counts. The list of top podcasts is assessed differently, this time based on the number of unique listeners.
Private sessions —or Spotify’s “incognito mode”—don’t count toward any list but the data from them falls under the “total minutes listened,” according to Billboard .
The 2023 winners list
Taylor Swift takes over Bad Bunny as the most-streamed artist on Spotify worldwide, with more than 26.1 global streams since January 1. Puerto Rican musician Bad Bunny held the top spot for three years since 2020, but fell to second place in the global list, followed by The Weeknd, Drake, and Mexican singer Peso Pluma.
But Swift hasn’t been able to oust Bad Bunny’s 2022 album Un Verano Sin Ti as the most-streamed album of 2023, for the second consecutive time. Her album, Midnights , ranks second, followed by SZA’s SOS.
The most-streamed song of the year in the world is “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus, with more than 1.6 billion global streams. “Kill Bill” by SZA and “As It Was” by Harry Styles fall in second and third place respectively, with Jungkook’s “Seven (feat. Latto)” and Ella Baila Sola” by Peso Pluma and Eslabon Armado to round out the list.
“The Joe Rogan Experience” remains the most consumed Spotify podcast for the fourth time running.
How Spotify Wrapped became so popular
Back in 2013, Spotify launched its first year-end review, aptly named “ Year in Review ” after realizing it had a trove of streaming data at its disposal. The graphics were on brand but not as kitschy as they are today, yet they still piqued audience interest.
By 2016, Spotify called the data stories Wrapped. Every iteration, Spotify Wrapped introduces quirky features also based on the data it's collected from users—ranging from detecting your supposed “audio auras” to being classified under 16 “listening personality types.” This year, Spotify Wrapped would have the features named “Me in 2033” which assigns a “listening character” that best describes your streaming habits, and “Sound Town” which matches users to a city based on their listening and shared artist affinity. It’s these creative data presentations that have been made shareable across social media platforms.
The fanfare is not just on the user side: creators are also active in promoting Spotify Wrapped. In 2022, artists recorded special messages for their listeners who placed them on the platform’s toplists. Celebrities like Dionne Warwick , John Mayer , and Lizzo have also jumped on the bandwagon of talking about the campaign.
In an interview with Variety in 2021, Spotify vice president and global executive creative director Alex Bodman said: “I’m sure we’d all love to sit down and say it was a marketing stroke of genius, but when it was first built it was a loyalty play. I don’t think we had any idea that people would want to share it so much.”
Correction, Dec. 6
The original version of this story misstated what Spotify counts as one stream. It is 30 seconds, not minutes.
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